September 11, 2003
Blessings Over Curses
Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
This week's Torah portion presents the blessings and curses that follow from observance or defiance of the law. Some people understand this as a rigid system of reward and punishment. Keep the covenant, and all will be well; violate it, and you will suffer.
The blessings and curses can also be read as a loving explanation of consequences. When a doctor warns a diabetic that eating sugar will make him sick, she is trying to help him, not wishing him ill. Torah laws are instructions for how to live in the world from the One who created the world.
Curiously, in Ki Tavo, as in parallel ancient Near Eastern texts, curses far outnumber blessings. But maybe the weighting of blessings and curses is not as disproportionate as it seems.
The whole premise of the High Holidays is that forgiveness is more powerful than a grudge. Repentance conquers sin. Good is stronger than evil. "The wicked spring up like grass" -- quick to grow and easy to trample. "The righteous grow like a cedar" -- slow to mature, but substantial and enduring (Psalm 92:8,13).
So, too, blessings carry more weight, and last longer, than curses.
In the holiday liturgy, we recite from Exodus 34:6-7, "Adonai, Adonai, merciful and gracious God, patient and abounding in goodness and truth. Keeping lovingkindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity...." We emphasize God's blessings using God's own self-description.
But verse seven continues: "Yet by no means clearing the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the ancestors upon the children, and upon the children's children, to the third and fourth generation." The prayer quotes only the blessing, but children inherit iniquity.
No less a figure than Jeremiah objected: "They shall say no more, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the sons' teeth are set on edge.' But everyone shall die for his own iniquity" (Jeremiah 31:28-29).
In truth, if not in justice, the curses of sin are commonly passed down for three and four generations. A man beats his daughter, and it affects her parenting. Her wounds wound her child. Then that child raises children, reacting to, and perhaps passing on, the consequences of a grandfather's sin. Certainly, the cycle can be broken, but three and four generations live and make choices in the shadow of the sin. Our verse is not prescriptive: here is your punishment for an ancestor's sin. Rather, it is descriptive: here is a lesson about how sin works in families.
It is harder to understand the blessing. Can we really fathom that God's grace lasts 1,000 generations? Is lovingkindness that powerful?
When I study Torah, I feel my zeyde's zeyde with me. Something ineffable -- love, communal memory -- is passed down with the text. The principle of zechut avot says that we inherit the merit of our ancestors for an unlimited number of generations. No explanation sounds complete or logical -- the merit inspires us, it rubs off on us, it shapes our collective unconscious, it delights God. Yet, I have sensed, as I hope you have, that when a crowd gathers on the High Holidays, it is not just the people in the room who are present. Past generations assist us in the work of repentance and forgiveness. Their loving energy remains long after any sins and torment have dissipated.
Lovingkindness enjoys not just longevity, but immediate power. As a rabbi, I have witnessed devastating passages that most of us, thankfully, will never experience. Parents stand by their child's hospital bed, praying for healing and, if not, at least for release from pain. An accident wipes out a young father's memory, so that he cannot hold a job -- or a coherent conversation.
In such terrible situations, people become exquisitely sensitive to blessings. Sometimes blessings can even eclipse the suffering. Every kindness by neighbors and nurses, every moment of peace and clarity, is felt keenly and deeply. Through the pain, love touches the heart and revives the soul.
High Holiday liturgy and theology acknowledge two types of blessings and curses. There are blessings we merit by practicing repentance, prayer and charity in the face of our own troubles. And there are blessings gifted to us by God's grace. There are curses we bring on by our own poor choices. And there are "natural" curses -- fallout from prior generations, random suffering we cannot explain or justify, and death itself. Life's blessings make the curses bearable. Blessings have a unique power, regardless of whether they -- or we -- can fix everything.
This season, we seek to control what we can. We challenge ourselves: What harm am I committing or perpetuating -- to others and to myself? How can I maximize blessings in the world?
The Talmud Megillah teaches: "[We read Ki Tavo] before the New Year ... so that the year may end along with its curses."
By our actions and God's mercy, may the coming year bring blessing, life and peace.
Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana.